Monday, December 19, 2011

THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (RKO 1945) Warner Archive Collection

W. H. Auden once said that "a daydream is a meal at which images are eaten." He might just as well have been referring to the classic Hollywood movie - an endless source of digestible fantasy to satisfy our every whim. The human condition is fraught with inconsistencies. Most of us spend ample time daydreaming 'what if' and 'if only' scenarios to supplement the stark inadequacies in our daily lives. It is this fertile escapism that illuminates John Cromwell's The Enchanted Cottage (1945); a strangely moving, overly sentimental excursion into romantic fantasy that still manages to retain much of its timeless allure, mostly because the performances given by its three principle leads are solid and appealing. Based on the 1923 play by Arthur Wing Pinero, the film is a sustained illusion - an almost magical hallucination that happily intoxicates its audience on its ether.
The plot involves two fateful souls; physically wounded/psychologically scarred American pilot Oliver Bradford (Robert Young) and mousy wallflower/housemaid Laura Pennington (Dorothy McGuire). Oliver first comes to the cottage with his haughty fiancée Beatrice Alexander (Hillary Brooke) before his accident. The two have envisioned their honeymoon there...or that is, Oliver has heard of the cottage's reputation for consecrating lifelong happiness and therefore desires that his own union should start off on the right foot. The two are met by the cottage's housekeeper, Abigail Minnett (Mildred Natwick) and her assistant, Laura Pennington. Abigail came to the cottage a young bride during the First World War. Unhappy chance, that her husband was killed in the conflict, leaving her to oversee the pleasure of other couples who rent the cottage and make it their own intimate retreat. Oliver attempts to carve his and Beatrice's names in a pane of window glass with her diamond engagement ring- a tradition of sorts at the cottage, But the stone is dislodged from its setting instead; an ominous precursor that foreshadows their break up.
Oliver's over possessive mother, Violet Price (Spring Byington) and meddling stepfather, Frederick (Richard Gaines) are perplexed by Oliver's choice of venue to start off his marriage. Adjacent the ruins of a grand estate that burned to the ground long ago, the cottage is unremarkable in every sense, nestled on a parcel of bleak land facing a rather restless sea and craggy cliff. Surely a more fashionable abode would do the engaged couple better. Alas, any plans are dashed when Oliver is called into service. He is downed and wounded, his face disfigured by a large gash and scar, his mouth twisted to one side and his left arm paralyzed.
Perceiving his own physical appearance as repulsive, Oliver retreats from his family to the cottage to be alone. He is waited on by Mrs. Minnett but tenderly coaxed from self-imposed exile by Laura and through the understanding heart of their neighbour, Major John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall); who found his true calling as a famed composer and concert pianist only after being blinded in WWI. Then a strange thing occurs. As Oliver tells it to John he awoke one morning to miraculously discover his former self restored and Laura, whom he has steadily been harbouring romantic feelings towards, suddenly transformed into a beautiful woman.
Naturally, John is shocked by Oliver's revelation. But he is also greatly pleased to learn how the strength of their love has mended Oliver's corrosive self-pity and cured Laura of her inability to appreciate her own innate value. Rejoiced and renewed, Oliver invites his mother and stepfather to the cottage where he intends to break the news of his marriage to Laura. Only, the restoration of Oliver and Laura is a cerebral myth - a play upon both their minds that has come to them from the magic of the cottage. They see one another as resurrected people. But the world can only see them as they are; scarred and physically ugly. With only Ted Tezlaff's clever cinematography to assist, the scene where Violet and Frederick inadvertently make this truth known to Oliver and Laura is both startling and heartbreaking.
After Violet and Frederick leave the disheartened couple to their realization John reveals a fundamental truth to Oliver and Laura - that nothing has changed. In their eyes they will always be young and beautiful - a myth of the cottage perhaps, but one that will endure and sustain them for the rest of their lives. The film concludes with John giving a private concert for his friends at his home. Oliver and Laura approach the front door as they are. But as they turn to look at each other their faith in the dream endures. They are once again a contented, handsome couple who can face the world together.
The Enchanted Cottage is poignantly wrought entertainment. The premise sounds hokey, but is carried off with such tenderness that it is easily becomes believable. It may be just me, but I've never found Robert Young capable of having true romantic chemistry with any of his leading ladies. He reminds me of the elegant suitor - good to look at but utterly void of the manly lust factor that made actors like Clark Gable and Robert Mitchum such great romantic leads. His Oliver isn't particularly engaging, but he need not be when flanked by Dorothy McGuire and Herbert Marshall's impeccable performances.
McGuire in particular captures the angst and insecurity of a young woman yearning for love, only to discover it in the unlikeliest suitor. Herbert Marshall (whom I have never seen give a bad performance) is superb as the introspective catalyst responsible for bringing Oliver and Laura closer together. In the final analysis, The Enchanted Cottage is an exceptionally affectionate and affecting piece of unlikely romance. It can justly be said that 'they don't make 'em like this anymore!'
The tragedy of this Warner Archive MOD release is that no one at the studio seems to think this vintage catalogue title warrants anything more than a slap-dash transfer, so horribly marred by age related ravages that it is barely hanging on by a thread. The video is a mess. Boosted contrast levels result in a thoroughly faded print. The gray scale is washed out. Fine detail is a non-issue. There is none! The image is frequently blurry and always softly focused. Speckles, scratches, tears and missing frames riddle this presentation. Truly, there is NOTHING to recommend this transfer. The audio is mono and fares considerably better than the video, only occasionally suffering from slight hiss and pop. There are NO extras. Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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